The Independent on Sunday is the only paper today keeping the story going. "Further No. 10 link to A4e" says the headline, linking the departure of Cameron's advisor Steve Hilton with the appointment of Harrison as "families champion". Hilton recommended her, they say. And they describe the £250k contract given to A4e last September. "A4e is advising No 10 on the next wave of privatisation. It will offer advice on "value for money" in contracting out, including writing guidelines on future privatisations. The firm will hold a seminar in Whitehall explaining how to design welfare contracts with private firms. .......... The Cabinet Office hired A4e to advise on four experimental schemes to help families with unemployed parents. All are in Conservative-led authorities: Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster, Birmingham and Leicestershire. A4e is not running the schemes, but is helping the Government write the rules on how they should work. They are based on social impact bonds, the Government's 'big idea' for privatising welfare. Investors and banks will pay private companies to help poor families. The taxpayer will then pay them back over years for the supposed 'savings'. A4e is being asked to advise how to stop welfare firms taking money for poor performance. Yet A4e has often been found to be a poor performer itself."
When A4e's main website went down recently there were some of us who felt that it was the result of a decision to revamp the site as part of an image makeover. But no. It's back, with no changes. Even the link to "Emma's blog" is there on the home page, even though it hasn't been updated since last November. Andrew Dutton has posted a response to the various accusations, and he ends with a note on "A4e and Emma Harrison". "As a result of Emma Harrison’s resignation, announced on 24 February, she is no longer a Director or Chairman of A4e which means she cannot participate at Board meetings. The governance of A4e has therefore changed with immediate effect and decisions relating to future dividend policy will be determined by the Board under a new, independent non-executive Chairman. In addition, Emma’s salary as Chairman and Director and payments made by A4e in respect of Thornbridge Hall have ceased." So who made the decisions about dividends before? And that last bit about Thornbridge Hall is interesting. The Board are really seeking to distance themselves from the woman who still owns most of the company.
But back to the websites. The MyA4e site looks like something designed by professionals who have no clear idea of who their target audience is. One could say the same about the multitude of other sites set up by A4e. There's A4e Voicewhich is a blog for good news items. The latest, posted on 2 March, is aimed at refuting the criticisms of A4e for using clients in work experience roles in its own company. Then there's A4e Transitions which is an arm of the company which provides services to companies which are making lots of people redundant. Very different is A4e Careers which apparently seeks to recruit people to work for the company. It's a mess, with cartoons, handwriting-style fonts and all the familiar slogans. Much more sober is the Direct payments for social care site. Eleven local authorities contract with A4e to deliver this service. Then there's A4e Skills which is "the direct delivery arm for vocational learning, delivering Apprenticeship programmes, work based learning (QCF & NVQ's), in-house training and vocationally related courses, accredited courses including e learning courses. Most training takes place within the workplace, working flexibly to meet the needs of both organisations and individuals." Finally there's A4e Insight, their "research and consultancy arm". This is where the line between private company and public sector becomes dangerously blurred.
I've almost certainly missed some of A4e's numerous websites. But what they show is a confusion about image, despite the vast amounts of money A4e has spent on PR over the years. Will the aim now be to shun the limelight, stop provoking the natural response to hype, and just buckle down to making money?
By the way, Emma Harrison is a trustee of the Eden Project, which is currently having to lay off staff because of financial difficulties.